As I'm writing this, I don't know if the Amalgamated Transit Union and Metro Transit will come to terms and avoid a strike, or not. I do know, however, that the city's desire to play hardball with its employee unions is a new thing, and one concurrent with the arrival of chief administrative officer Richard Butts.
The union has said all along that its members would work under the provisions of the old contract, which expired in September, and take all the time needed to work out an agreement with the city. It is the city, not the union, that pushed negotiations up against the wall: the city's negotiators cut short the negotiating process, and forced the January 22 strike vote with a "take it or leave it" offer not open to compromise.
Butts started his career in garbage management, working for first Laidlaw Waste Systems and then as a VP at Waste Management, before moving on as a deputy city manager for the city of Toronto. His strong anti-labour stance reflects the growing divide between workers and executives in Western countries, where executives' salaries are getting ever-bigger, but workers' unions are busted, wages slashed and protections removed.
Halifax council hired Butts last March to fill the vacancy left by the exit of former acting CAO Wayne Anstey. Anstey had made $175,000 annually; Butts was hired in at $285,000 and will see his salary rise next month to $300,000.
Butts still maintains a residence in Toronto, and word in city circles is that he flies "home" each Friday, returning to Halifax on Monday morning for the work week. Last I checked the property records, Butts owns no real estate in Nova Scotia, and seems to have no long-term personal commitment to the community where he's working. Should council want to rid itself of Butts "without cause"---that is, without a finding of wrong-doing---Butts will receive a severance package of $450,000, which he'll presumably take back to Toronto while he looks for his next job.
But those people who make a lifetime work commitment to HRM, have mortgages and raise children here, will receive no such consideration. Several other city unions are coming up for contract negotiations, and Halifax Water workers, who have been without a contract since 2008, rejected a city contract offer Tuesday night and can go on strike with just 48 hours notice. It's worth noting that over the last two years Halifax Water manager Carl Yates got back-to-back annual pay raises of 40 percent---once again, managers' salaries skyrocket, while workers are put against the ropes.
And it's essential that these attacks against workers be seen in the context of the ship building contract recently awarded to Halifax's Irving shipyard. The ships contract was sold as the route to prosperity for our community, but it appears to be benefitting only a few---for sure, the real estate market is booming, with house prices already jumping six percent. No doubt realtors and property investors are making a bundle. But with a proposed salary increase of just 0.5 percent, and with less job security, how are transit workers going to keep up with the additional housing costs? Heck, as Mairin Prentiss reported in The Coast last week, even the people actually building the ships---shipyard workers themselves---are gearing up for a protracted battle to get even one thin slice of the ships contract prosperity. And the community most directly affected by the increase in housing prices---the lower north end---is left reeling, with no assistance given to the community groups that can provide basic support and assistance to the most impoverished.
We are in the midst of an immense re-ordering of our society, a meaner, harsher world, where the rich get much richer, the workers lose what little they had and everyone else can just go screw themselves.
Unless of course regular people refuse to accept it, and refuse to accept the appeal to our baser instincts that says the path to personal prosperity is to impoverish everyone else. Quite the contrary is true: a securely employed, well-paid working class is the surest path to societal-wide prosperity. We must do better by each other, and better by our public employees.
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